Construction is seen below the skyline of Johannesburg's upmarket Sandton suburb. File picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Johannesburg - “Never trust a builder.” It might be a cliché, but the truth is, inferior buildings have blighted history since ancient times, at huge cost to property and life. The first recorded major building disaster was a cheaply-built amphitheatre in Rome which killed about 20 000 people. The Roman Senate apparently responded to the tragedy by barring cheapskates (or common folk) from hosting gladiator shows and requiring all amphitheatres to be built on sound foundations, inspected and certified.

In modern-day Greece, a landslide in 2012 in the town of Ropoto caused it to gradually slide down a mountain – luckily, no one was been injured but flimsy foundations and steep inclines were cited as the cause. In 2013 we saw three major disasters: the Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1 130 people (mostly female garment workers and their children in the building’s crèche) and injured 2 500; an illegally occupied building in Thane, India, which killed 71 (a witness said the building collapsed “like a pack of cards within three to four seconds”); and TB Joshua’s church calamity in Nigeria, in which 116 people, mostly South Africans, died.

Recently, the collapse of a 17-storey apartment block in Tainan, Taiwan, revealed that tin cans and foam were used as filling in the concrete structures. Little wonder it failed catastrophically during the earthquake – a regular occurrence in the region – but also claimed the lives of more than a 100 residents. Mercifully, these horror stories are not the norm but illustrate the point that things can go horribly wrong with our man-made structures.

In South Africa, we’ve had far too many examples of shoddy building: RDP houses that fell apart even before occupation, illegal structures held together by a wing and a prayer, walls so skew a water level was unlikely to have come near it, falling slabs that killed workers, balconies collapsing underfoot, dodgy designs and structures springing up overnight, with no apparent consultation or plan approval.

It’s not fair to tarnish an entire industry because of a few bad apples, because many reputable companies take pride in their work, but the exceptions to the rule have done enough reputational damage to sully the good guys. To regulate norms and standards in the local building sector, the National Home Builders’ Registration Council (NHBRC) was established in 1998 in terms of the Housing Consumers Protection Measures Act as an agency of government.

It isn’t funded by the state, though, nor do proceeds filter back to the Treasury – its revenues are entirely self-generated. Its mandate is to protect consumers, regulate the home-building industry, promote building innovations, set standards and improve skills.

Tshepo Nkosi, the council’s corporate communications and stakeholder relations manager, said the agency was formed to protect the poor: “One of the reasons we were created was because of the shoddy workmanship of the RDP houses. Over time, there have been fewer and fewer complaints. We’d like to believe it’s because of our active involvement in the sector.”

South African law requires all new homes must be enrolled with the council 15 days before “breaking ground” – this not only entails site inspections but also, if the property is bonded, to allow for banks to release tranches during key phases in development. This should guarantee quality work and give the owner an insurance against any structural issues that may arise.

In theory, that is, because the complaints against builders and the NHBRC are rife. Many builders (who are unwilling to go on record) accuse it of being a money-making scam (1.3 percent of the value of every new residence goes to the council, which amounts to multimillions each year and a warranty fund in excess of R5 billion) while consumers view it as a toothless authority.

Nkosi views their role differently: “The home is one of the biggest investments consumers are likely to make, but there doesn’t seem to be very much understanding about the role we play. We’re on a drive to change that and educate the public. Besides roadshows, we’re planning to fit out trucks to take into rural areas – fully-operational offices we can take across country to allow builders to get registered and where consumers can lodge complaints.

“We need to protect people. In the past, when people cashed in on their pensions or their life savings, they often built a home for themselves as wealth creation – it’s a big risk. We are the regulator for the building industry. We were created to regularise the social housing industry because the constitution demands that we be given adequate housing. We also act as a form of insurance. When you build a new home, you need to use a registered NHBRC builder and to register your home with us – we call it enrolment.

“The 1.3 percent goes towards our warranty fund that gives you a measure of comfort that, when you move in, you give the builder a snag list (list of defects) and if he refuses, you have recourse. You can come to us and lay a complaint.

“We hold your hand during the building process: starting at the foundation level, we send an inspector out to make sure it’s in order. Inspectors are supposed to visit every building site between four to eight times, although builders have told me they rarely see inspectors, and when they do, inspections are as superficial as a quick gloss over and, ‘it looks fine, you’re doing a great job’.”

This is not, Nkosi admits, the way it should be. “If any builder feels they are not being supported, of course they must raise the issue with us because it is their right.

“We need to hear about (inspectors not doing their jobs) because we are required by law to inspect buildings. If you can’t stop something in the early stages, there’s very little recourse a homeowner will have,” he says.

Hotels, government and commercial buildings fall outside the ambit of the NHBRC – their only focus, for now, is on new homes, which includes townhouse complexes and apartment blocks.

“The inspectors are full-time employees of the NHBRC. We have over 200 inspectors nationwide and 23 offices. We are confident we have enough inspectors and we move capacity where we need it.

“A minimum qualification for inspectors is a degree or diploma in the building environment: engineering, architecture, quantity surveying and/or related fields, but there isn’t a national qualification for inspectors. There are efforts to formalise and professionalise inspector training, though: we recently signed a partnership agreement with the SA Council for Project and Construction Management Professions which will enable the development of continuing professional development training programmes that building inspectors will have to undertake in order to maintain their accreditation. This means, in future, inspectors will have to be registered with this body in order to carry out inspections.”

This does mean, for instance, that just about anyone with a background in the built environment could be an inspector, including people who have probably never worked on a building site and wouldn’t understand the ins and outs of building but would still have to assess quality workmanship and structural issues.

The NHBRC believes its courses are sufficient to fill that gap. “The warranty fund is worth over R5bn but we set aside R30m for training builders annually, so if we identify a skills shortage, we offer free, targeted training. We also upskill the youth, women, military veterans or their beneficiaries. Before they get registered, they need to write a test with us to identify some minimum knowledge and skills.”

In the 2014/2015 financial year, 471 new complaints were lodged with the council, though its annual report points out complaints lodged in a particular year are not necessarily resolved or closed in that particular year. Of those new complaints, 23 percent were maintenance-related, 66 percent related to potentially major structural defects and 11 percent were roof leaks. Nkosi couldn’t say how often rulings were made in favour of the homeowner, but 202 builders had their memberships suspended and 328 disciplinaries were held in 2013/14, compared to 233 and 339, respectively, the following year.

“You have to judge every case by its merits. Both sides need to be heard. So if the roof is leaking, we ask the builder to fix it. If they don’t, we deregister them, tap into the warranty fund and do it on their behalf.”

Important to bear in mind, though, is the fact that they are only concerned with functional issues: “We don’t look at aesthetics, only technical issues, because it’s about safety and quality. The look is between you and the architect.

“The legislation is being reviewed because we don’t cover renovations and additions, which are worries for us. It’s a process but until it’s law, (if dangerous extensions or alterations are brought to our attention) we can send inspectors to alert the council to the fact they are not doing their jobs. Another concern is the credit crunch: people are buying sub-standard (non-approved) bricks and other building materials.

“Near Henley-on-Klip, we found a man who was selling bricks cheaply on the side of the road. They weren’t up to standard (we have our own testing facilities at Corobrick). Our job is also to educate, so we took him off the street and trained him to make proper bricks.”

It’s not a perfect system and alterations and renovations are of concern, but for now, the NHBRC is the only regulatory body mediating in the interests of consumer and builders. And while both have rights, they also have responsibilities towards each other.

WISE UP

Inspections: The five main stages are excavation and foundation, floor slab (substructure), walls (superstructure), roofing and finishes, and a pre-occupation final stage.

The number of inspections depends on the value of the enrolment and the design’s complexity.

Problems? If the NHBRC inspector identifies a deviation from their building guidelines, a non-compliance certificate will be issued to the builder, who will then be obliged to rectify the issue within a specified time frame.

If they are unable or unwilling to do so, the NHBRC can stop construction and institute disciplinary action against the builder.

To lodge a complaint: If you and your builder can’t resolve your differences in a reasonable manner, you should approach the NHBRC.

Notify the builder in writing of all the complaints requiring attention within the applicable time periods set out in Section 13 (2) (b) of the act, keep a copy of the letter of complaint and proof of the date that it was sent to the builder, allow them reasonable access to the property to rectify the issues, and ensure all financial obligations to the builder are met.

What to include in the complaint: Proof of the occupation date of the home, if applicable (for example, occupation certificate), proof of notification to the builder within the necessary time periods, and a complete list of the items of dispute.

Help at hand: Phone the NHBRC’s toll-free number 0800 200 824, or visit their site and complete the complaint form.

BEFORE YOU BUILD

* Check the reputation of the home builder by either calling the NHBRC or through its website.

* Ask to see the builder’s NHBRC registration certificate.

* Call the NHBRC to confirm that the builder is still registered.

* Speak to others who have used the builder’s services in the past.

* Make sure that the builder gives you a contract that covers the building of your home.

* Before signing the contract, make sure that you have read and understood, and that the description of the work to be done and specifications of materials, finishes and fittings to be provided is in accordance with your requirements. Variations to these during the course of the contract can be costly. If you aren’t sure about what is being offered, ask the builder for clarity or get legal advice.

* Carefully check the terms and conditions of the building contract and keep a copy of the written agreement and all other documents.

* Never pay in advance for work – only authorise payment once work has been completed to your satisfaction.

* Systematically inspect your home and tick off items room by room. Check that the interiors, exteriors and the site boundaries been correctly and clearly marked, debris cleared, and that all contractual work/ finishes are correct.

* Some builders will ask you to sign a form saying that everything is in order. This is reasonable, because the time to report a crack in a pane of glass or a chip in the bath has to be the date of entry. Later on, it will be impossible to say who caused the crack or the chip.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]

Follow Georgie on Twitter: @askgeorgie

The Star